Laying the groundwork for all popular music, the rock and roll sound of the 1950s is romanticised as often as it is analysed, and holds a unique position in the canon of not only western music, but western culture as a whole.
Without the imagery and sound, the young group of Liverpudlians who became The Beatles would never have cut their teeth playing skiffle in Liverpool or playing mammoth all-night sets in the seedy clubs of Hamburg, The Rolling Stones would never have met due to their love of American records and Bob Dylan would never have shocked the folk music purists by ditching his acoustic guitar for an electric one. Rock and roll set the precedent for all music which followed, and its stars and their lifestyles are just as interesting as the music itself. Here, we look back at the rise and fall of five of the most famous names of the genre.
1. Elvis Presley
Perhaps the most famous music star of all, Elvis is characterised as taking a predominantly African-American sound and placing it before white audiences, shocking Middle America in the process with his suggestive dancing and raucous vocals. Beginning with a more brusque, stripped back sound, Elvis’ music became tied to his own enormous success and lifestyle, becoming more grandiose and commercial-minded, culminating in residencies in Las Vegas Casinos and his eventual, extravagant death.
2. Buddy Holly
A more mannered individual than many of his forbears, Buddy Holly is cemented in popular culture due to his untimely death in a plane crash in 1959, along with Richie Valens and ‘The Big Bopper’. Despite a relatively small output compared to his contemporaries, his work and iconic look remains timeless. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles would cover his songs, while his distinctive glasses have been pilfered by everyone from Elvis Costello to Weezer.
3. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry’s guitar-led sound and on-stage strut sent audiences into raptures during the 1950s, and his tunes matched his reputation. Covered by Jimi Hendrix and cited as a main influence from the American Invasion up until Pub Rock and Punk the following decade, Berry faded into obscurity as his work continued to shape the 20th century. Let’s just forget about My Ding-a-Ling.
4. Little Richard
A flamboyant performer and dresser whose influence can be seen in everyone from George Clinton to Prince, with his signature vocal “whooo!” often pilfered by Paul McCartney, Little Richard’s thumping piano and suggestive lyrics laid the groundwork for everything from disco to hip-hop, and he at one stage boasted a young Jimi Hendrix in his band.
5. Jerry Lee Lewis
“GOODNESS GRACIOUS, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!” screamed arch-provocateur Jerry Lee Lewis during his performances; lyrics reflected in both his incendiary records and lifestyle. Known for playing piano with his feet, standing up (a big deal at the time), as well as a more sinister personal life, Lewis remains one of rock and roll’s most intriguing and elusive villains, though appears occasionally for the odd interview.